What I Have Learned from an Artist
A student observational drawing from the Children's Innovation Project
In 2010, Jeremy Boyle, Resident Artist at Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab, was asked to wonder about a question: What might innovation with technology look like for young children? And he thought he might like to explore this question with me in my Kindergarten classroom at Pittsburgh Allegheny (only blocks from the Mattress Factory where we started our work together seven years before).
When I started as a teacher in 1994 on the Southside of Chicago in what was then the Robert Taylor Homes, I was introduced to a concept of arts-integration. By luck or serendipity, I met one of the best teachers I know (Karla Daye, Chicago Public Schools), and I also met one of my most significant intellectual mentors (Daniel Scheinfeld, of then, Erikson Institute). Back then I thought “arts” was fun. I didn’t know how to be a teacher, but I got to work with a teaching artist who was a dancer and I learned to collaborate to find ways to integrate movement into my teaching of language arts. I got to explore and take risks and learn an artistic process for teaching that I didn’t even know I was learning at the time.
Forward to 2003, in Pittsburgh Public Schools. I took my first grade class on what I then called a “field trip” to visit the Mattress Factory, an installation art museum on Pittsburgh’s Northside. We walked up two staircases in the 1414 building to visit the installation of Jeremy Boyle entitled “Studio Project.” Jeremy engaged my students to think about process as he shared his own process as an artist. This led to our collaborative classroom work on numerous arts-integrated projects over the next years connected to Jeremy’s own work as an artist and musician.
Forward to 2010, still in Pittsburgh Public Schools, but Jeremy now a Resident Artist at Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab. He was asked to wonder about a question: What might innovation with technology look like for young children? And he thought he might like to explore this question with me in my Kindergarten classroom at Pittsburgh Allegheny (only blocks from the Mattress Factory where we started our work together seven years before).
Forward to now, still in Pittsburgh Public Schools, co-directing Children’s Innovation Project with Jeremy, working inside Remake Learning Network in the Pittsburgh region to re-imagine what innovation might look like, might inspire in children’s thinking, might nudge in teachers’ approach to growing innovative thinking.
It is the distance between 2010 and now that I want to talk about. I want to slow down and allow others to see the space inside this distance and the depth of my own learning as a classroom teacher inside this space, my learning from an artist.
Everyone sees Children’s Innovation Project for what it is now, for what it looks like on the outside. But how did it start? How did it grow? Why did it grow as it has?
Full disclosure, I likely would have never thought about or talked about or even read about technology without Jeremy. In 2010, I didn’t know what a circuit was, I didn’t know about voltage of batteries or binary numbers or diodes. I had never thought about children’s language in terms of cause-effect logic or knowns-unknowns. I wasn’t posing questions to children about systems or parts-whole. I hadn’t thought about the difference between teamwork and collaboration. I hadn’t even started to wonder about the role of creative inquiry in developing critical inquiry. The idea of learning as material was as abstract to me as a fleeting metaphor in a poem I didn’t understand.
From the beginning, my work with Jeremy has been about unknowing. I don’t know. We don’t know. Let’s jump into a space of not knowing and notice a process of children’s thinking and learning, and notice our own thinking and learning in the process.
For our first two years (2010-12), Jeremy would come to my Kindergarten classroom each week and bring some Circuit Blocks he had created. We would talk together for 10-15 minutes to plan a lesson sequence that might work. Then, we’d try it. I didn’t know the content or what would happen in the circuits or what the logic was for/with the technology. But I did know young children and how to phrase a question that might open thinking. We would both listen to what children said, we would notice what children did and then later that day we would sit across a booth at a local pub and reflect on what happened. Who was learning? What were they learning? What surprised us? What went wrong? What could we do better? What materials might come next? Why?
And Jeremy would teach me: What makes a circuit a circuit? What is a switch and how could we make one? What is a volt? How do binary numbers work? What is computational logic and why does it matter? What do you mean by artistic process? How is the discipline of art about everything and nothing? Tell me more about John Cage and Robert Irwin— why/how do they relate to what we are doing? Why do you care about this?
And I would wonder: How might we phrase the concept of polarity in a way that children might better understand? Do you notice that only some children speak in cause-effect logic, how can we scaffold language so all children have access to the logic? What might happen if we slowed that down and focused more on children’s talk about their process? Can you tell me that again so I can think of other words to explain it and maybe allow more connections?
Over the past six years, our teaching and listening, our noticing and wondering, have become more blurred, more collaborative, so seamless we barely see the edges. Although I still don’t know the content of electricity, engineering or art like Jeremy and I rely on him for much of the in-depth thinking about our theoretical frames, it often appears like I might know what I am talking about, especially when working with groups of elementary teachers starting this for the first time. The truth is, I still know nothing about most of the material of technology and we often use the opportunity of presentations for me to try to explain something to a group, later for me to ask Jeremy for critique, correction and feedback. This is how I learn. Jeremy is my best teacher.
There is a colleague with whom Jeremy and I recently talked who was explaining the challenge of interdisciplinary teaching/learning. She spoke of what was happening in her school between teachers as parallel play and how they were trying to get past this. Just as young children often parallel play side by side before they interact or co-create play together, I think most of what happens in classrooms in the name of arts-integration or interdisciplinary learning is actually mostly parallel play of teachers. Teachers come together inside their disciplinary thinking and try something alongside each other, pick a theme, find a way to approach it through art, then math, then science, then put in some robotics product and call it innovative, call it integration, call it STEAM, call it ____.
What I like most about Children’s Innovation Project is that we are not trying to be anything that can be called anything. We are focused on learning about learning. And our primary focus and purpose come from Jeremy’s background in art. What is powerful, to me, about the “discipline” of art is that it is not about anything in and of itself. It is a way of looking at other things, a way of thinking, a way of process, a way of reflection, a way of unknowing in on itself.
More than anything else, art is a process of approach, a sensibility of seeing and not seeing, a deep belief in perspective as transformative, and a desire for unforming form. This is most significant to what I continue to learn from my collaboration with Jeremy in our Children’s Innovation Project. Way beyond the parallel play of disciplines, Jeremy’s perspective and approach as an artist have transformed what is possible in my thinking about thinking in my classroom and in the schools where we now work.
Children’s Innovation Project embraces technology as a vehicle for learning habits of mind that are important for innovative thinking and approach of learning. It is not about an end-product, but about process. Much in the same way, my learning as a classroom teacher is not about what I teach, it is about my own habits of mind as a teacher, my approach to my own teaching and learning. In this way, who I am as a teacher, how I approach my process, where I find meaning and why I do what I do is primarily influenced by a process of art, taught to me by an artist.